I’ve not been reading much about art lately, as I often find reading/analyzing and doing fairly incompatible acts when attempted simultaneously, but I have just read an old essay that turned out to be unexpectedly timely. Published in German in 1766, and first translated into English in 1853, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoon: oder über die Grenzen der Malerie und Poesie (Laocoön: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) is a delightful rumination on the limits of two sister arts. He ultimately ends up praising these limits, which is why I find the work so timely, now that we’re in an age that seems to let any medium try to become any other. A few months ago I’d first tried to get through a remarkably inelegant, almost incomprehensible English translation of it that appeared in 1898, and gave up—it was atrociously faithful to the German, to the point of becoming an absurdist text in English, curious but insufferable. The McCormick translation published in 1962, on the other hand, is a gem. In the spirit of Herr Lessing I’ll digress for a brief moment only to note that, no, Gotthold isn’t any direct relation of our contemporary writer Doris; for several years—after reading her Golden Notebook and long before reading anything of his—I’d thought (or wanted to think) that was true. In terms of lucidity and sharp critical thought I’d claim that they are related, but that’s the extent of it. Those who feel deceived by my title are welcome to quit here.
But back to the essay: his exploration of the respective limits of painting and poetry is, to a certain degree, a response to the Horatian simile ut pictura poesis (as painting, so poetry) and a potential misinterpretation of it. While Lessing’s work as a translator is clear in his analysis of language, his later point that a work’s poetry may well lie in concision is exposed by this first reaction to the (likely unintended) assertion that poetry should be as painting is.
Opening with a comparison of how poetry and painting affect amateur, philosopher, and critic, he seeks to establish a balance between the two types of art. The amateur equates the two—both proffer absent things as present and appearance as reality, and both create a pleasant illusion. The philosopher looks instead at the nature of the produced pleasure, and names the source as beauty, with its subsequent rules applicable not only to artistic form, but also to thought and action. Finally, the critic takes these general rules and examines their application in various art forms with differing and often complimentary roles.
Mentioning in passing Winckelmann’s “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” it becomes clear that Lessing will continue his predecessor’s preference for classical antiquity. Noting that a still, deep soul can be expressed even in its moments of stirred passion, he claims that, contrary to modern German (or European) traits, the ancient Greeks held up the paradigm of artist and philosopher as one, and condoned the depiction of beautiful bodies to the exclusion of any other sort. The end purpose is the highest goal: of knowledge, it’s truth; of art, it’s pleasure. The reciprocal nature of what we might term “artistic culture” is outlined here: good (beautiful) men produce good (beautiful) work, and vice versa. Beauty is the supreme law of both visual and poetic arts. The expression of passions, and degrees thereof, is circumscribed by certain limitations; the depiction of unpleasant or upsetting passions should be limited, or at least portrayed with some beauty. In the Laocoön, the pain was too great to be shown with beauty, so it was tempered, hence the discomfort inspired by the pain is transformed, through beauty, into pity. Beauty is transformative.
Lessing’s observation that his times have expanded (or even abolished) the classical limits placed on art, and beauty is but a small part of art’s newer priority of depicting nature in all its sorts, carries echoes of Caravaggio et al. and the scandalous idea of working directly from nature, which was so highly criticized at the time. Art’s aim at truth and expression places beauty below these primary goals, and they in turn transform even the ugliest bits of nature into what Lessing Romantically terms “artistic beauty.” Despite this, artists must nevertheless restrain their depictions, and never show an action at climax. Here he addresses the key difference between painting and poetry, or visual versus verbal arts. Painting carries with it material limitations and the ability to show only a single moment of time from a single vantage point (cubism, anyone? Might Braque have been egged on by this essay?). Additionally, the most “fruitful” or effective point of view is the one that is well thought out for long-term contemplation and leaves the imagination free. Needing to choose one moment of an ongoing action, that action’s culmination is generally the least suitable, weakest moment from which to imply the whole in painting or sculpture, as it limits the imagination by showing the most extreme point, forcing the mind and eye to focus on the lesser aspects. Permanence comes into play here—the chosen single moment depicted, although it should hint at the rest of the action, mustn’t have anything fleeting about it. Returning to impassioned art, Lessing cites the late Byzantine painter Timomachus, whose work is known through the writings of Pliny the Elder, as an artist paramount for his ability to combine two major things in his work: the precise moment that most fires the viewer’s imagination, as opposed to exposing all to the viewer’s eye, and a visual approach to the passing moment that keeps its pleasantness even when captured forever, perpetuated as a frozen object in art. Lessing discusses Timomachus’s superiority over another, unknown painter; the former depicted the murderous Medea before she commits infanticide, whereas the latter shows her in the act; what might he have had to say about Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes?
Lessing goes on to consider whether or not both painters and poets enjoyed real freedom in their work, or if it was constrained by external dictates like religion (that word freedom does warrant a digression about autonomy and heteronomy, which I don’t dare go into here). Whereas pleasure is the ultimate goal of the work of art, religious demands and superstitions often confined the artist. Lessing opts for unfettered art as the true art above those done for religious aims, which focus more on meaning than on the pure depiction of beauty. And conceptual art? Though perhaps a loss for us, yet luckily for him, he wasn’t around to have witnessed the past sixty-odd years. His mention of artists who “create for art’s sake” is dubiously credited in a note from the translator as “possibly the first use of the expression ‘art for art’s sake.’” I’m not so sure about that, but it would be radical.
Citing a statement by the British writer Joseph Spence marveling at poets’ brevity in describing the muses—goddesses to which, after all, poets owe their very art—Lessing in turn critiques Spence’s seeming obtuseness in not recognizing that the name and function of a character, expressed in poetry with words, serve the same purpose as the visual attributes, in lieu of words, with which a painter is forced to depict a character. Here Lessing is simply pointing out that it would be redundant, not to mention a betrayal of each art’s respective strengths, for poetry to describe a character as she would be visually depicted in painting. While I don’t quite follow his differentiation between the “allegorical beings” of painting and the “personified abstractions” of poetry, as it seems to me that these are the same things merely expressed in different media, his point is quite clear: poets can concisely use words, painters must rely on visual clues. Neither should worry about mimicking the other art, and both should focus on the strengths of their own means of communication. He returns to this later when discussing his surprise at seeing a painter use the poet’s device of cloaking something in a cloud when it is meant to be invisible to the other characters in a scene. Just as it would be silly for poets to adopt verbal descriptions of things as seen in painting, it’s equally absurd that a painter would adopt so literally the poet’s device of rendering things invisible with a shroud of fog or darkness, something quite effective when described in words, yet odd when converted into paint.
These limitations—painting’s need to visually depict, poetry’s need to signify in words—determine the very nature of each art. Continuing to take examples from classical antiquity, he imagines how a painter could go about showing Minerva as stronger than several men combined. In Homer’s Iliad she is described as such, and the listener’s or reader’s mind conjures this up in the imagination, whereas a painter, forced to depict her visually, inevitably loses that advantage. In choosing to show her several times larger than a man and hence convey her strength through size, the “marvelous” disappears and is replaced by an improbable and ineffective rendition that seeks to engage the eye rather than the imagination. Here Lessing returns to the cloud comments I noted earlier, pointing to such a device as “not what the poet intended. It exceeds the limits of painting…” by becoming a hieroglyphic symbol, a visible key to make us read something as invisible, and therefore one step removed from the poet’s direct statement of something’s invisibility.
He then returns once again to an earlier passage and reiterates that where poetry can describe an event unfolding in time, painting can only suggest an event’s course by choosing a specific moment and portraying actions through bodies and their implied movement. Painting is limited to the “single moment of an action,” and poetry is limited to “one single property of a body.” Each much choose the most effective moment and property, respectively, to communicate its story. The essential rule, clarified in Homer’s epics, is that “harmony in descriptive adjectives and economy in description of physical objects” are necessities. Lessing elaborates this idea of harmony in adjectives later on, and for the moment moves on to the potential objections that could be raised against this rule. Poetry’s symbols may be successive, but they are also arbitrary, and as such should be able to depict bodies in space—like the shield of Achilles, for example. This is dismissed by agreeing that the “symbols of speech” are indeed arbitrary, but that this applies to speech in general, not poetry specifically. Essentially, it’s a question of style; yes, language doesn’t prevent a poet from describing everything, including space as a succession of bodies and actions, but the artistic demands of poetry (i.e., to make things strongly felt, as opposed to just understood or dryly conveyed) make it impossible. We need to be rapt at the “moment of illusion,” rather than distracted by how the poet created the illusion through words.
Lessing digresses for a moment to indulge the idea that even Homer succumbed to a dry laundry-list approach in his descriptions from time to time, casting doubt on his clear-cut line dividing painting and poetry, but he follows it with the clearest summary of his thesis—namely, that the poet reigns over the succession of time just as the painter reigns over the succession of space. Poetry is a verbal, temporal art, pain ting a visual, spatial art. For the two to encroach on one another’s realms is sheer bad taste. He uses the analogy of two friendly neighbors who have a mutual respect for each other’s terrain and maintain a tolerance for any eventual transgressions. Here Lessing is quite indulgent, pardoning artists like Raphael who combine two moments into one as evidenced in a curious fold of drapery, and sees this error as minor, committed in the name of capturing more prefect expression. I wonder what he’d have to say about Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel scenes, wherein Saint Peter is shown in quaint continuous narrative, foreshadowing Muybridge’s startlingly non-static stills….
Forebearance is Lessing’s main mood here: forgive the painter who occasionally shows more than one moment at once, pardon the poet who occasionally uses more words then the strict minimum. His earlier mention of harmony in the use of adjectives returns here, as he dispenses pardons specifically for those extra words that a poet can use according to the lucky structure of his language. Comparing Greek, German, and French, he points out that what Homer could get away with in describing the shield of Achilles, its forging and figurative details, cannot be excused in its less scintillating translations into German and French, which “give the meaning but destroy the picture.” This is made slightly more complex with the addition of the temporal aspect: Homer chooses to describe the shield not as it exists when complete, but rather as it’s being made. The details that are statically coexistent on the final armor, described as they’re being formed, become consecutive in time. Hence Homer perfectly adapts this description to the strength—time, not space—of poetry; a painter would have to approach it quite differently, emphasizing space rather than time.
Lessing concludes with a reaffirmation of limits’ benefits for each art. By not allowing poetry to use infinite descriptions, poets are forced to focus on the effect their words have on listeners and readers. While Homer doesn’t go into vivid description of Helen’s beauty, he makes her beauty clear through the circumstances and surrounding events, with a jury of elders deeming it worthy of the wretched war they’d endured. By verbally conveying the results of beauty, poets “paint” the beauty itself. The confining lines Lessing has worked to establish between painting and poetry are blurred by his choice of words here, bringing us back to the present. How he pulled this off 241 years ago I can’t begin to imagine.
So, admit it: if you’ve read this far, or if you even read past the first paragraph, you’ve also read Lessing’s essay, along with Greenberg’s and everyone else’s additions, and likely know a lot more about all this than I do, which confirms my suspicion that I’m probably one of the last people to get round to this piece. My interest in current visual works blending theater and more static visual arts aside, anyone working in poetry, painting, sculpture, video, or anything else would likely enjoy having a look at Lessing’s little essay. I won’t pretend to have any new insights about it—what is most striking is that such a potentially old, musty musing about such old, musty arts and ideas can remain so pertinent today.
Previous Lunar Refractions can be found here.